Yet Another Uneasily Beautiful Album from Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell has a new album out, Big Sur. It’s Pacific Coast pastoral jazz commissioned by the Monterey Jazz Festival, this era’s preeminent jazz guitarist joined by his quintet: violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Hank Roberts and drummer Rudy Royston. This may be the sunnier side of Frisell, but there’s a persistent unease that recurs throughout the album: lively and lithe as much of this music is, it’s deep. A couple of themes and variations are interspersed throughout a mix of songs that don’t miss the bass: in places, Frisell’s guitar loops or Roberts’ pizzicato carry a bassline, others don’t address it. Where that happens, the songs make tremendous practice pieces for bass, a challenge to match the minimalism and focus of the rest of the band.
There’s a dancing West African-flavored theme. There’s also a stately march with a considerably more apprehensive edge, moving from the emphatic Going to California with its warm, major-key jangle anchored in overdubbed lows with hints of noir, to the jaunty but wary strut and close harmonies of Gather Good Things, to the spare, understated title track. Highway 1 may be an elegant Sunday drive in one of Jay Leno’s old Pierce-Arrows rather than a hotrod theme, but again, Frisell grounds a persistent eeriness in the low registers: by the end, the funky beat has given way to a sway and a low roar. The most gripping, and characteristically Frisellian track here might be Shacked Up, with its ambling, blues-tinted, almost cruelly surrealistic Lynchian Pacific Northwest atmosphere.
But there’s humor here too. The Big One has Frisell and the strings doing a tongue-in-cheek faux Ventures impression. If you want to hear Rudy Royston almost play a surf beat – he refuses to completely Mel Taylor it – this is for you. We All Love Neil Young is a playful homage to Shakey’s catchy folk side, Scheinman getting the lead line. And Walking Stick (for Jim Cox) is Frisell at his most jovial and carefree as the band switches up the meter from a ballad to an oldfashioned C&W stroll.
Other highlights include the lively, cinematic Hawks, a syncopated English reel of sorts; Cry Alone, which is more steadily reflective than plaintive; the swaying folk-rock Song for Lana Weeks and the closing track, Far Away, with its unexpected grit and ambiguity barely beneath its windswept terrain. Here, Frisell finally allows himself a few bars’ worth of a solo that quickly tiptoes into the shadows. Where does this fall in the Frisell pantheon? Somewhere in the middle, which makes it one of the best albums of the year.
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